The Difficulty of Intention & 'Death of the Author' by Bronwen Griffiths


An event occurred recently which caused me to reflect upon intention. A story of mine that’s been up on the Black Country Arts Foundry website for two years suddenly attracted attention – and not of the sort I initially welcomed. (The link to the story follows below this article).


My story is loosely based on real life events and is told partly in the voice of a child. In the story I use the word ‘gypsy’. When I wrote the piece I was well aware that the word is now considered to be offensive. Happily it is not now in common parlance and we use the word ‘traveller’ instead. But when my brother and I were children, the word was widely used, including by my own mother, although I do not recall any particular prejudice on her part. However, my brother and I did hear from those around us, of the ‘bad’ things ‘gypsies’ did.

My brother and I attended a local village school in the 1960’s. A small traveller community then lived in the village. I cannot remember exactly when it disappeared, or indeed quite why it disappeared. As for my brother and I, we were, I admit, a little wary of the traveller community, mainly, I believe, because we knew so little about them – but mostly we were just curious, as children often are. 

In the latter part of the story I write about how things have changed in the village I grew up in; how much of it has been ‘smartened’ up and how the travellers suddenly vanished. I lament the passing of this way of life. However, this is not entirely clear in the piece. The story could be interpreted in a number of ways, and one of those ways might be to think that I disliked the traveller community and am happy they are gone. This was far from my intention but in re-reading the story after the complaint had been placed, made me acutely aware that intention is not always sufficient.

One of the problems with writing is that we, as authors, are very close to our material. We know what we are thinking in our own heads but this is not always obvious to others. We experience this in our day to day communication too, both face-to-face and on social media. Not so long ago I put something up on Twitter that a woman objected too. I felt myself bristle inside but I took a deep breath and explained to her that what she thought I meant was not what I intended. But again my communication had been unclear. It took that Twitter user to show me that my tweet was very much open to interpretation. Of course we all know that people will deliberately twist and misunderstand what we say and write but in these two instances this was not the case.

Sometimes we opt to hide behind this lack of clarity. We can claim that we not intend offence when perhaps we did. In terms of my story, I cannot be 100 per cent certain what I thought or felt about travellers when I was a small child. It is too long ago now. I honestly believe I am being truthful when I say I had no prejudices against them. But is that entirely true? I really cannot be certain.

In our modern age, the ‘death of the author’ has been much discussed. In a famous essay, Death of the Author (1967) by Roland Barthes he argues that it is the reader who makes meaning on the page, not the author. Certainly, though I do not subscribe to this idea in its entirety, I know and understand that the reader is an essential part of a piece of literature. The reader will bring their own thoughts, meanings and interpretations to the page. Therefore we, as authors, need to interrogate our work if we intend for what we write to be understood in a particular way. Even if we do so, we will still be open to interpretation. Indeed all creative work is open to interpretation, and is often seen differently over time.

Sometimes we wish to offend. Sometimes it is necessary to offend to make changes in society. The Suffragettes, the Black Lives Matter Movement and other social movements, all of which make use of creativity, have – and will continue – to offend some people. But if, as in my own story, the intention was to show a particular thing and that thing ended up no clearer than a muddy pond, then something is amiss.

Bronwen is the author of two novels and two collections of flash fiction. Her flash pieces have been widely published. She is working on a novella and a novella-in-flash. You can read some of her work online on her website & even purchase some of her books.



Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Bronwyn. This opens up so many points for discussion (as is so often the case with Barthes). My first reaction to the claim that 'the reader [...] makes meaning on the page, not the author' was defensive. Unthinkingly, I felt that that could be a denial of the artist's (any sort of artist's) intention. On reflection, though, it's obviously correct. It's up to the writer to articulate his/her 'message' - both its surface and its subliminal meanings - in a way that prevents it being too severely distorted. But 'the best-laid plans, etc.' and, in the end, the responsibility for interpreting the words lies with the reader.
Peter Leyland said…

Great discussion of language and meaning Bronwen and what the intention is. I remember in my first job in Tilbury a group of families were called didicoys because they kept their horses on the grass verges. A more recent memory is when a colleague used the n word in a paper they were presenting. This upset someone and the writer was heavily criticised. On Twitter the other day I said a poem about assault was ugly and was asked did I think a poem should be beautiful?

The Barthe s book looks interesting - another must read. Thanks for the blog.
Umberto Tosi said…
Chewing on who brings meaning to text, the reader or the writer, qualifies as a koan (particularly for us writers who concern ourselves with such things.) Drives me a little batty. As a longtime journalist, I always concerned myself with clarity - to be sure that I conveyed information as accurately as possible. I'm wary of writing fiction that goes for ambivalence. Too clever by half, I muse, but I see the charm if something works it works. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

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